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September 01, 2008

Great Depression Alt-Hist

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Hey history buffs! It's alternative history time again at 2Blowhards!!

This time, the subject won't be war. Instead, suppose the Great Depression of the 1930s had simply been a nasty recession lasting two or maybe three years instead of grinding on for nearly a decade in the United States.

To set the stage, some economists contend that the bad economic times were as severe as they were and continued far longer than normal because of a reactive imposition of protective tariffs by the United States and other economic powers. Let's assume this contention was true and that, instead, tariffs were not altered, resulting in a shorter, less-painful downturn.

I am not an economist, though I brushed elbows with them professionally for most of my working career. So please do not assume that I necessarily believe that the collapse of world trade was a factor in how the Depression played out. The explanation superficially makes sense, but I'll leave it to Lex Green, his Chicago Boyz buddies and other knowledgeables to discuss that. Do keep in mind that our present wealth of economic data didn't exist in 1929 or 1930, so the actors at the time as well as current researchers have a lot less to work with when studying economic events of that era. Regardless, the hypothetical I'd like us to play with is a shorter, gentler depression or whatever it might be called.

Now for my two cents.

If the United States was clearly on the economic upswing by the start of 1932, Herbert Hoover might have remained in the White House. And even if Franklin Roosevelt or another Democrat had won that fall's election, the likelihood that the New Deal would have happened would be nil. I suppose a few programs might have made their way into law, but not the whole thing. Today's politics and economics would be considerably different, absent the New Deal push to big government.

I'm less sure of the impact in Europe. France, if I understand correctly, was a little late to the Depression. So an early end to it might have allowed that country to skate through without a lot of damage. The Popular Front might never have happened or happened in a different way. As for Germany, Hitler's assumption of power was one of those near-run things. Given a recovering economy in the fall of 1932, there's a good chance he would not have been able to make his bid in 1933. Whether he might have been able to pull it off later is impossible to say, though I'm inclined to doubt it.

Finally, it's likely that the Auburn, Pierce-Arrow and Reo automobile companies would have been introducing their 1940 models in the late summer of 1939.

And what is your alternative version of history without a Great Depression?



posted by Donald at September 1, 2008


Given the POD, the TL is ASB territory.

Point of Departure
Alien Space Bat

This one's actually been covered quite a few times down at soc.history.what-if when it was active and at which is still active.

I'm not as active in the community as I used to be. But it's one of those highly developed and prolific net subcultures that are completely unknown to the wider culture of the web.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 1, 2008 9:04 PM

Well, it's almost a certainty that WWII (as it was fought) would have been avoided, and that both the radical left and right would have been far weaker than they turned out to be. Also the modern Democratic party would have benn farther to the right (and the Republicans would have been farther to the left, since modern conservatism was very much a reaction to the excesses of the New Deal) than is actually the case. The world would have certainly been far better, from most perspectives. But what else would have happened would have been anybody's guess.


Posted by: tschafer on September 1, 2008 10:19 PM

My guess is that if the Depression had not been so severe, that an even nastier one would have come along later, driven by the same sorts of economic mistakes and miscalculations.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 1, 2008 11:17 PM

Didn't quite a bit of New Deal, in the sense of Big State, legislation come in under Hoover?

Posted by: dearieme on September 2, 2008 7:08 AM

You are probably right that the New Deal would have been a non-starter, and the drastically expanded federal government powers most people now accept as normal would not have taken root. We'd be all the better for it.

It's tempting to daydream about World War II being averted, but that's a tough call. From what I understand, the rise of militarism in Japan had been on an upward curve for quite a while — the war with Russia took place in the very early years of the century, after all — and the militarist culture, combined with Japan's scarcity of natural resources, gave imperialist expansionism a big boost.

As to Germany, it depends on whether Hitler and the Nazi party represented a societal sickness that would have found expression regardless. Depression or no, the anger over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles would have been present. The worries about a Communist revolution, which led many powerful German industrialists to support the Nazis, would probably still have been a factor, although in more prosperous times the Communists might have gotten less traction. Even in the '20s, Germany had a reputation for corruption (see the drawings of George Grosz or Christopher Isherwood's stories).

But if Britain in particular hadn't been lumbered with an economic crisis, it might have been more prepared to stand up to the Nazi regime, assuming the Nazis attained power anyway. And Britain would have been less of a soft opponent in Hitler's mind. He might have thought twice about steps leading to the war, such as the Anschluss with Austria, annexing Czechoslovakia, and maybe even the precipitating cause, the invasion of Poland.

Had there been no Depression, it's doubtful that John Steinbeck would have been taken very seriously as a writer.

Posted by: Rick Darby on September 2, 2008 11:39 AM

A big cause of the depression was that the FED kept interest rates high when they should have lowered them. FDR egged the FED on with their high interest rate policy so that he could promote his socialistic policies. If the interest rates had been reduced, the depression would only have been a fairly bad recession, but not the all consuming depression it turned into.

Hoover probably would have been reelected.

The big thing is that the Weimar republic would probably have made it over in Germany and the Nazis would not have come to power. The Nazis were popular in the mid 20's but actually lost popularity in the late 20's because Germany's economy recovered from the hyper-inflation of the early 20's. However, the trade protectionism and the resulting depression slammed Germany's economy and the result was Hitler's successful election as Chancellor.

The Great Pacific War would have still happened, however. The Japanese were into taking colonies (in order to be like Europe) and we may or may not have gone to war there.

All of the social programs, of course, would never have occurred and government, in general, would be much smaller. Thus, our economy would have grown much bigger and we would all be much wealthier than we are now.

Posted by: kurt9 on September 2, 2008 1:09 PM

Suburban development would have gone on as it had in the 20's and probably sped up in the 30' and 40's. American cities would have declined and we would have become dependent on foriegn oil at an earlier date. We may have eventually seen Japan as a threat and gone to war with them at some point but the Soviet Union probably would have gone to war with the at some point as well if we didn't. Britain or France would probably have developed nuclear bombs and nuclear power at some point followed by the US and USSR. Television would have gotten a boost since it was on the verge of coming on board in 1930. We may have had less nostalgia for old-time radio and all of the early radio shows would have been brought to TV. Many stars from the 30's and 40's would have probably become TV stars and theatre attendance would have declined at an earlier date. People like the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, would have been known for their TV shows in the way Jackie Gleason and Lucy are. Candidates would have had too look good on TV at an earlier date and by the 40's we might have seen John Kennedy types come up. It is hard to say if race relations would have gone the same way since the Depression and WWII influenced it greatly. Inner city America would have still declined but if immigration was not resumed at some point, blacks from the south would have migrated north as they did anyway. This would have caused tension but if it would have led to the civil rights movement is anybody's guess.

Posted by: Robert on September 2, 2008 2:10 PM

Spike Gomes: soc.history.what-if is still fairly active. Not what it was, but far from dead.

Kurt9: Your chronology is off. The Nazis had very little success in the 1920s until the Depression started to bite. Only in 1929 did they become more than a fringe party, and it was in 1932 that they had their greatest success. But they falled to gain power. In the next election, the Nazis lost some ground and were out of money. (Brownshirts were literally begging on street corners.) Nonetheless, excluding the Nazis and Communists, it was impossible to form a parliamentary majority; and von Papen negotiated a coalition deal with Hitler.

Don: it's really quite hard to say where history might have gone with no Depression. Some of the political and military consequences can be estimated. But the shape of U.S. culture was deeply affected by the Depression in ways that are not clear - and how relative prosperity would have played out seems beyond analysis.

Here's one idea, though (particularly appropriate to 2Blowhards): in OTL (Our Time Line), the Depression shut down nearly all commercial construction. There was very little happening outside the academy, and thus the Modernist School took over completely. No Depression: commercial, traditional architecture continues to be built.

Another impact could be in movies. More prosperity, more revenue for Hollywood, more "blockbusters"? Or does the increased cost of labor make a lot of OTL's productions unfeasible?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 3, 2008 2:16 AM

Another possible effect: broadcast TV would appear earlier. It was fairly close to being commercialized before WW II, but during the war all such developments were put aside.

(I learned a while back that in London in 1939, there were "sports pubs" where patrons watched cricket Test Matches, football Cup Finals, and horse races on television!)

Obviously the film and TV industries grow differently. OTL, from the arrival of sound to the challenge from TV was about 20 years. Reducing that to 14 years has got to do something.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 3, 2008 2:23 AM

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